Celtics fans were all a little more innocent on May 18, 2008. At that time, the Pierce-Garnett-Allen Celtics had not yet won an NBA title together. The New Big Three quivered with possibility, but we didn’t know yet whether they could pull it all together when it mattered. Anything was possible, yes, but that included the possibility that these Celtics as constituted weren’t good enough to go all the way.
Perhaps the biggest unknown that May was whether or not Paul Pierce could be the guy on a winning team. When Kevin Garnett blew in from Minnesota, he brought his bluster with him. The more games the Celtics won — and they won 66 during the regular season — the more Garnett appeared to be at the center of it all. Garnett would average 18.8 points and 9.2 rebounds in his first season in Boston. The chest pounding and knuckle push-ups were a bonus.
Garnett was the visible face of a changed Celtics culture, but it was Pierce who led the team in scoring during the 2007-08 season. It was Pierce, also, who came up largest when the Celtics needed him most. In Game 7 of the Celtics’ Eastern Conference semifinal series vs. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Pierce had perhaps his finest game in a Boston uniform.
You know the basic plot, but in case you need a reminder, here are the highlights from the box score of that May 18 game, won by the Celtics, 97-92.
— Pierce: 41 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds
Shooting: 13 of 23
Free throws: 11 of 12
3-point shooting: 4 of 6
— James: 45 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds
Shooting: 14 of 29
Free throws: 14 of 19
3-point shooting: 3 of 11
The game featured masterful shot-making by both players, made better by the fact they were guarding each other. Several times, Cleveland got as close as three points in the 4th quarter, but Pierce held off the hard-charging James throughout. Cleveland never led in the game. The game’s last tie was at 4-4.
Despite that fact, the game was not without drama. A Sasha Pavlovic 3-pointer (I know, right?) made it 95-92 with 8.6 seconds left in the game, and the Cavs immediately fouled Pierce. His first free throw landed with a thud on the rim, hung suspended in the air, then fell through the net. Afterward, in his postgame press conference, Pierce pointed to a bit of divine intervention.
“The ghost of Red [Auerbach] just looking over us,” Pierce said, smiling. “I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction”
There were other historical elements at play here, too. Twenty years earlier, Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins had battled on the parquet in a Game 7, won by the Celtics,118-116. Bird’s 34 points — 20 in the fourth quarter — were enough to hold off Wilkins, who poured in 16 of his 47 points in the fourth quarter.
Pierce and James would make their own history six years ago today. The win was the first part of Pierce’s rise from Boston great to all-time great, the second being his Finals MVP a few weeks later. It also marked an important step in James’ ascension. The 23-year-old James was not yet ready to overcome a player like Pierce and a team like Boston, but it wouldn’t take long for him to get over that hump.
Pierce and James would go through many more battles, and James often seemed to save his best for when facing Pierce. But there was something more tactile about this one, a quality easier to grasp and hold onto in our memory banks. That the game was a major hurdle in Boston’s march to the championship probably has a lot to do with that.
After the Celtics won the title, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the team’s DVD premiere at TD Garden, where selected fans and media watched highlights from the team’s championship run along with the players. A few seats to my left was Pierce, sipping on a glass of red wine and taking in the visuals from his seven-game battle with James. In what seemed like his first chance to exhale and put his perspective on the series into words, the Celtics captain let out a loud sigh.
“LeBron’s a beast, man,” Pierce said to a team staffer.
So were you, P.